The 2020 Census is entering the digital age for many reasons. First, it is more sustainable – no more paper. Then there is this idea that more people will participate because it will be digital and easier to access. The information gathered can be processed in real time and thus will be more efficient and, arguably, more accurate. But will it? Can you count on everyone to have access to digital technology? And can you do it without an app? Let’s explore why this is such a big deal to me.
As a Latina, I am aware of how important census data is to my community, as well as other communities of color, because accurate counts afford us equal representation and equal access to government resources. Census data directly impacts government representation because it is used to allocate seats and draw district lines for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures. Results also determine how hundreds of billions of federal dollars are allocated to states and municipalities. Resources and services impacting everything from housing, health care, schools, business resources, afterschool care, and much more.
Previously the survey has been done on paper, with official government forms and a cadre of thousands of temporary workers across America going door-to-door to ensure everyone gets counted. Then there is a follow up group that seeks to capture data from the “hard-to-count.” Challenges have always existed in counting certain portions of the population, which according the census data typically includes: children, rural residents, individuals of color, immigrants, homeless, and others. Unfortunately, this time around, this same hard-to-count segment will be exacerbated by the digital divide.
The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) data shows that 19.4 million Americans still lack access to broadband, which is a crucial component of completing an online survey, like the 2020 census. Additionally, in a rural-urban split, the digital divide also falls along racial lines. In 2018, less than half of Hispanic adults and just over half of black adults reported using home broadband compared to 72% of white adults. I haven’t even gotten into other factors that maintain hard-to-count populations on the fringe – but technology and the digital divide as a factor is incredibly frustrating because most of the country has a Facebook page and it seems like the digital divide isn’t a thing, especially in the US – but it is. Lack of internet access is an obstacle to being counted and being counted matters to representation in our democracy.
But what about smartphones? You can order groceries, pay your bills, deposit checks, all from your phone. And indeed, some of the hard-to-count population is digitally connected on their mobile device. According to a Pew Research study in 2015 on U.S. smartphone use, African Americans, Latinos, younger adults, low-income adults, and those without a high school diploma are most likely to depend on a mobile device as a primary or sole source of internet access. Yet, there is no official word if a census app is being developed to allow for increased access via a smartphone. News outlets have reported that the 2020 census will work best, and is most secure, on a laptop or computer. So, here’s hoping a 2020 Census app can bridge the digital divide, at least when it comes to being counted. Surely if I can do my taxes on an app, I should be able to be counted with one too!